An interview with Tasmin Little: energy and poetry

Tasmin Little has firmly established herself as one of today’s leading international violinists. An exclusive recording artist for Chandos Records, Tasmin just recorded two further discs for Chandos. The first, the World Premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s Four World Seasons written for Tasmin, coupled with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and recorded with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, was cheered on by Gramophone for its virtuosity. The second disc, a disc of Franck, Szymanowski and Fauré with pianist Piers Lane is praised by audiences and critics for its ‘impassioned performances’, ‘yearning melody’ and ‘energy and poetry’ (The Observer).

Not only triumphant in performing and recording, Tasmin is widely known as a champion in her musical outreach missions to people everywhere, young and old, regardless of their social background or knowledge of classical music.

As Seth Godin writes in his book Tribes, “Tasmin Little is leading a moment. She is investing time and energy in a committed, consistent effort to spread classical music. She didn’t just upload an MP3 file. She regularly visits prisons and small towns and schools to perform. She adds value to her site in addition to the music. She’s not a dilettante; she’s a leader.”

Tell me about your Franck, Faure & Szymanowski recording? Did it turn out as you had expected? 

I absolutely loved making the recording of the Franck, Fauré and Szymanowski – all of the works with the exception of the Szymanowski sonata had been in my repertoire for a great many years and so it was a joy to have the opportunity to put down my thoughts on disc. No recording ever turns out 100% the way you imagine but there are times when you can come very close to what you hoped for – and this album is happily one of those occasions.

How critical are you of your own work?

I am hypercritical of my playing but I enjoy the recording process because it gives me an opportunity to evaluate how I am playing and work out ways to improve my interpretations.

How would you describe your collaboration with Chandos?

I am really enjoying my relationship with Chandos and they are a hugely supportive company. What I particularly value is the opportunity to record some standard repertoire alongside the more niche works and unusual areas of repertoire. Obviously Chandos and I share a great passion for British music and so this is reflected in many of the albums that we have made together.

Is there any musician or conductor you’d love to collaborate with? Any dream repertoire?

One of my favourite conductors is Charles Dutoit – I hope one day I will collaborate with him as he is a real hero of mine. His recording of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe is my desert island disc of all time.

How did you start playing the violin? Was there any special moment when you knew that becoming a musician was a thing that you were going to pursue?

I began playing the violin quite by chance when I was ill with chickenpox at the age of six. To alleviate my boredom I taught myself to play the recorder and once I was better I started the piano and violin. The moment I picked up the latter instrument I knew I simply had to make this my life. Obviously when one is six years old, one assumes that anything and everything is possible (!) and it wasn’t until I started my teenage years that I began to worry that I may not be able to make my dream of being a soloist come true. Happily with a lot of hard work, dedication and some lucky chances, I have been able to fulfill my childhood ambition.

What do you think you would become if you didn’t become a violinist?

If I hadn’t have been a musician, I would have enjoyed being a psychologist, particularly working with children.

In 2008, Tasmin started a project entitled ‘The Naked Violin’ where she recorded a new album to be made available as a free download from her own website. This recording of Bach, Patterson and Ysäye (including spoken introductions to each work) provided an opportunity for anyone, anywhere to experience her music and classical music in general. ‘The Naked Violin’ and Tasmin’s outreach workshops ‘No Strings Attached’ have reached over 12,000 school children and thousands more adults. It went global in 2009 and she has taken the project to China, America, New Zealand and Australia.

What was your learning point from the whole Naked Violin experience? Did it somehow change you personally and/or musically?

The Naked Violin project is one of the most exciting things that I have done in my career. I feel particularly happy that I received so much fabulous feedback from people who said that I had given them a way into classical music. I always believed that anybody can appreciate classical music and this project gave me the opportunity to put that into practice. Musically and personally, it was a very rewarding experience.

Not too many classical artists have come up with such idea. Were there any other ‘unconventional’  projects you’ve tried which we haven’t heard of?

Other than this project, the other things that I have done that I feel proud of are the artistic curatorships of two festivals, both of them in the home towns of my parents! I put together a week-long festival in Bradford called “Delius Inspired” and managed to persuade the director of Radio 3 to broadcast the whole week of events so it became a really national festival! There were concerts, exhibitions, films, talks and a whole music education programme where we reached a huge quantity of school children within the week. As a direct result of that school programme,  a special music school was opened to give local children the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I felt that my festival had had a major impact on the community.

A few years later, I was artistic director of Spring Sounds festival in Stratford-upon-Avon for 3 years. During this time I commissioned my great friend Roxanna Panufnik to write a colourful work for violin and orchestra entitled “Four World Seasons”. It was a huge success and I recently recorded it for Chandos coupled with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

What would it take for you to stop playing the violin?

What would it take for me to stop playing the violin? Quite simply it would be if I felt I could not continue to play as well as I have done in the past. I always want to feel that I am learning and improving – I guess the reality is that there will come a day where that is no longer possible… but if and when that day arrives, I will simply find another way to involve myself in music! Maybe through education or festivals or maybe there is a seed developing inside me for another project.

Tasmin Little in conversation with Primephonic’s Rina Sitorus

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